A few years ago, I wrote in an “On V Update to Old Ideas” that Eric C and I fall into the “optimist-idealist” camp when it comes to the future of war. Not only do we think war is decreasing over time, we think someday humans will be able to end all war. That makes us optimists.
But it feels strange to describe ourselves as “idealists”. Certainly a view of humanity as fundamentally good is idealistic. But is that inherently unrealistic? We didn’t come to that idea in a vacuum. Rather we found it in in academic research by Stephen Pinker, Joshua Goldstein, John Horgan, Bruno Tertais, Micah Zenko, Michael Cohen and John Mueller, who all wrote that--despite the constant war coverage in the media--the world is actually more peaceful and less violent than at any time in its history. The forces making it less violent and more peaceful, they also tend to argue, will likely continue in the foreseeable future. In essence, our optimistic views aren’t idealistic at all, but founded in a realistic view of contemporary events.
Yet, ironically, some international relations realists stand in front of this academic train yelling, “Halt.” For instance, Frank Hoffman writing on the realist website War on the Rocks, “Plato was Dead Wrong: Embracing Our Better Angels”.
When it comes to debating war, the “realists” like Frank Hoffman may as well be the idealists. Instead of using facts, data or anything empirical, they rely on ideals...an idealism based in a pessimism. To show this, I am going to go through Hoffman’s 2,500 word article and show the (lack of) evidence he uses to support his worldview that the world isn’t getting less violent:
- A misattributed quote. That’s right, the central uniting theme of his article is a “quote” from Plato, an incorrectly attributed quote that, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” As we’ve written before, Plato didn’t say this; the unknown George Santayana did. Unfortunately for Hoffman, he googled the phrase to link to it. GoodReads.com doesn’t count as a reputable academic resource. If he had scrolled down, he might have stumbled across our article on “Quotes Behaving Badly.”
- No academic citations or footnotes. Yep, after linking to Stephen Pinker, Bruno Tertais, Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen, Hoffman doesn’t link to a single academic article that argues that war is increasing in frequency. He doesn’t link to them because they don’t exist. Instead, he simply argues that globalization makes interstate war more likely, but can’t provide the data to support this.
- No charts or graphs. As a student of history and business, I know better than most that line graphs can be easily manipulated to prove anything. Hoffman, though, doesn’t even bother because he doesn’t even have the basic data on his side. No amount of chart manipulation will make it seem as if the world is on the verge of cataclysmic war.
- Elevating current news stories to data points. The key to arguing against optimists who say the world is less violent is doubling down on what one sociologist has called, “mean world syndrome”. Because the constant news cycle emphasizes violent and particularly heinous crimes, it makes the world seem more violent and chaotic than it really is. Hoffman absolutely embraces this strategy in his second paragraph:
“Ignore the front page of today’s paper. The civil war in Syria doesn’t exist and Damascus is a vacation hot spot. Egypt embraced Jeffersonian democracy while you slept. North Korea’s leadership has offered Disneyland and Starbucks unlimited access to the Hermit Kingdom...the Mullahs in Tehran have renounced clerical rule, asked for forgiveness for storming our embassy, and given us permanent basing rights on their coast.”
And Hoffman wrote this before Russia invaded Ukraine. (The article is from last year.) He takes four data points and says, “See the world is more violent than ever.” Hoffman, like most realists who insist the world is more dangerous than ever, do so by selecting certain current data points and ignoring the rest, all the countries not engaging in wars.
- An anecdote. Hoffman then tells a story how British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, Norman Angell and Ivan Bloch all predicted peace and were proven wrong by World War I. He, of course, doesn’t mention the countless people who predicted a nuclear war in the 1950s, only to be proven wrong. The point is, the accuracy of past predictions isn’t evidence either way.
- Appeals to pessimistic beliefs about human nature. To cap off his argument, Hoffman, like most pessimists/realists, relies on the foundational belief that humans are naturally violent and self-interested:
“...human nature and history have not changed. Better yet, go back and glance at Plato, Thucydides, Hobbes and Clausewitz. They all recognized that the “better angels of our nature” was mere gossamer. A realistic appreciation of the human condition, one founded on a few millennia of frequently brutish and violent human history, will always serve as a reminder of the folly of illusory and Utopian thinking.”
For a website founded on realism that allegedly prefers personal experience to ideology as a starting point, Hoffman seems to start with Thucydides, Hobbes and Clausewitz--again, his Plato quotation is completely inaccurate and contrary to much of Plato’s writings--and goes from there. Worse, as John Horgan completely demolished in The End of War, there is hardly any scientific evidence--either genetic, historical, anthropological or cultural--that human nature is fundamentally evil.
Unlike the times of Thucydides, Hobbes and Clausewitz, we now have rigorous social science that can test hypotheses. And the hypothesis that human nature is fundamentally evil has failed.
So there you have it: quotes, single data points, anecdotes, and an over-riding pessimistic belief a la Hobbes that mankind is nasty, brutish and violent. Data is the enemy of the realists, so that doesn’t make them very realistic, does it?